NADA SURF + Rogue Wave @ Cabaret

By Mike Bresciani - The Lonesome Strangers - 03/10/2006

There’s something so rewarding about seeing a show on a Friday night in Montreal. The week’s gone by and the countless amount work you put into those last five days just reinforces that sense of accomplishment. That is, unless you’re majoring in Communications studies, in which case you’ve probably learned nothing during the last 120 hours. Even so, one would like to think that this show has been in heavy anticipation, especially after spending a week analyzing useless films, discussing abstract art and learning about the deeper meaning behind De Certeau’s idea of “Railway Incarceration”… fun stuff.

Surprisingly, there was no one opening up this show. I had half-expected some local band to play a quick set before Rogue Wave. I speak for many people when I say that it’s usually the unannounced opening band that gives me that 30-minute buffer zone before getting to the show. Thankfully, most people -- myself included -- got there on time, and caught the magnificent Rogue Wave. Unfortunately, their set was way too short, as they truly performed the duties of an opening band by playing for just over a half-hour. For that brief period of time spent onstage, the four-piece went through selections from their two studio albums, the newest one being Descended Like Vultures, which came out via Sub Pop in October. Their songs felt faster and louder compared to the sweeping mid-tempo guitars I remembered from their studio recordings. This is usually the case for most live shows, so I’m really pointing out the obvious here; that notwithstanding, I was very impressed. They were nothing out of the ordinary, but that’s what I had intended to see. Opening with “Bird on a Wire” (no, not Leonard Cohen) and “Every Moment” (Napoleon Dynamite sountrack), the band played through the rest of a steady set which featured ditties from their 23-song catalogue like “Medicine Ball”, “Catform” and “Love’s Lost Guarantee”. Having just crossed the border less than two hours before show time, Zach Rogue and Co. had staged the perfect in 'n out performance, which provided a superb beginning to this well-orchestrated Sub-Pop/Barsuk double-bill.

With their second headlining tour in support of The Weight Is A Gift, Nada Surf returned to Montreal after playing La Sala Rossa only five short months ago. Having been one who had missed them the first time around, isn’t it wonderful to get a “live show do-over”? It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, that level of satisfaction tends to reach fantastic heights.

Their live show had been hyped up to me by numerous individuals, and with good reason. Nada Surf performed the ideal live show, and whether or not you had ever listened to them before tonight, you’d walked out of this show sporting an ear-to-ear grin. Whether it was playing in one of Montreal’s best live venues, having a stellar opening act or the enthused crowd of twenty-somethings, everything seemed to be playing in their favor. For one thing, who would expect lead man Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca to speak fluent French? Most artists make a half-assed attempt to speak a bit of broken French with the audience, but this duo actually went so far as to play their song “Fruitfly”, with Caws singing in English and Lorca (posing as a snooty poet) translating the lyrics into French, much to the delight of the crowd. This French banter left drummer Ira Elliot hilariously out of the loop for much of their onstage witticisms.

As for the tunes and the overall presence of the band, it seems like the Nada boys have perfected the art of the live performance to a T, with a certain tightness that not all three-pieces can maintain throughout a 90+ minute show. The setlist was by and large songs from their newest release, peppered with enough tracks from their three other records to keep the old-school fans happy. Formulaic but nonetheless enjoyable, the song choices were seamless, and with the addition of a few exceptional covers, the trio kept the audience guessing at all times. Their rendition of the Smiths’ classic “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” gave me goosebumps, as I felt compelled to sing along with the stranger to my left. Later on during the show, while playing “Killian’s Red”, they went into a striking version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, a song which has been covered to death. Still, I was awed with their adaptation.

From the new album, songs like “In The Mirror”, “Concrete Bed” and “Always Love” stood out from the rest. “Blankest Year” had to be my least favorite track from the new album, yet in this live setting, it ended up surprising me the most. With the chorus going “oh fuck it/I’m gonna have a party”, the song brought the members of Rogue Wave onto the stage, with their bassist Evan Farrell popping open some fresh champagne as the others danced around and sang backup. It’s amazing how the weakest part of the CD ended up being one of the strong points of the performance. But that’s how this show was: flawless, from every possible perspective. Even the people who just came to hear them play their 1996 hit “Popular” went home happy campers, as the band played the song halfway through their encore.

To this day, most people remember hearing that one song on 99.9 The Buzz during the 90’s. It’s strange because that song is just the complete opposite of what the band stands for. “Popular” seemed more like an artsy, experimental song that went horribly right, somewhat like the Eels' spoken word track “Susan’s House” off Beautiful Freak. What’s odd about the new album is that it has a small piece of cardboard folded on the top -- something usually reserved for import CD's -- and it boasts:

    “Nada Surf show enough smarts and panache to leave most of their nineties-rock peers eating hot dust” – Rolling Stone.

Now, I’ve always stayed away from bands who’ve felt the need to advertise for their own CD… on the actual CD. Still, when one comes to think about it, Nada Surf does stand tall with the Weezers, the Gusters and if you wanna really push it, the Bob Moulds (Copper Blue specifically). Notwithstanding, the band seems to be getting lumped in more with that hip O.C. indie rock crowd with bands like the Shins and Death Cab, which is predictable as they’re on the same label as Death Cab and they had their cover of “If You Leave” on one of those O.C. mixes. Even so, it shouldn’t really matter what category you put them under: Nada Surf makes great music. They write fantastic love songs, which are simple and to the point, much in the same vein as other signature geek rock outfits out there -- if you wanna call them geek rock, that is. They’ve gotten over “Popular” long ago, and they’ve never really tried to make or re-create another song with that same impact. One couldn’t say that about a band like Weezer, who’s been trying to catch that same spark that drove people bananas for their first two albums. They’re now churning out forgettable albums with embarrassing singles, whereas Matthew Caws and his bandmates have stayed consistently good for years, and that’s what really matters in this fictional battle for alt-rock supremacy.

[Tune in to The Lonesome Strangers every Wednesday from 4:00pm to 6:00pm.]

See also previous Nada Surf-related reviews:
Nada Surf with Rilo Kiley @Cabaret, May 2005
Nada Surf @La Sala Rossa, October 2005